Clive Sowry's desire to preserve New Zealand's film history runs like a current through a career which has included long stints as an archivist at the National Film Unit, and Archives New Zealand. En route he has ensured the preservation of 100s of films that might otherwise be lost, and become a key expert on the NFU.
Born in Dunedin, Sowry was raised in Stokes Valley on the edge of Wellington. He began watching movies in the valley's Koraunui Hall, where the projectionist had to exit the hall for a small room at the back, in order to start the screenings. Occasionally Clive and three siblings were allowed to set off to town with 10 shillings from their parents — enough to cover four movie tickets, plus fish and chips.
Sowry suspects the first time he got his hands on "the recorded image" was at primary school — he was fascinated by the filmstrip projector, and the way the still images needed to be loaded in upside down, and back to front.
Snared by the escapism offered by a "world of storytelling and exotic places", Sowry was also growing interested in the mechanics of how films were stored, and played back. At high school he bought his own 16mm film projector, and got a projectionist's certificate after passing tests at the National Film Library. The world of film spools, celluloid and chemical baths grew more fascinating, after he went to a talk by a laboratory technician from the National Film Unit. "I realised it was something all the creative aspects of filmmaking depended on: if the film was not processed right, and handled right, it could be completely destroyed."
In 1974 Sowry joined the National Film Unit as a laboratory assistant, joining a lab team which then numbered more than 30. The organisation had been making films since 1941— although as Sowry soon became aware, the history of government filmmaking in NZ stretched back at least two decades before that.
One of his first tasks was to check the quality of prints that were emerging from the lab. One time he had to sit through 32 copies of the same film. Later Sowry applied to move into the front office, where he dealt with independent filmmakers whose footage was being processed by the NFU. Meanwhile his interest in the organisation's rich history — and that of New Zealand and Australian film — saw him hunting down old newspaper clippings in his off time. He explored 'Annie's Room', where much of the unit's obsolete equipment still sat, and learnt more about the NFU catalogue — which ranged from wartime newsreels to footage of local agriculture, events and scenic spots.
As the 70s drew to a close, "various strands" began to come together — both in the unit, and outside it. "I was trying to advocate for more to be done, in terms of preserving the films," says Sowry. NFU manager David H Fowler proved sympathetic, although there wasn't much money to spare. In 1978, just before the unit relocated from its longtime base in Miramar, Wellington to new buildings in Avalon (in Lower Hutt, on the edge of Wellington), Sowry was redesignated as a senior film processor, with responsibility for archives.
"I set about trying to systematically work out what the Film Unit had. That was quite an undertaking." Sowry began checking films for deterioration and decomposition. Up until 1951 most of the NFU films were on cellulose nitrate, which was famously flammable. Roughly a million metres of nitrate film was stored in an ammunition bunker in Wellington's Shelly Bay. Sowry instigated annual missions to help prioritise what should be saved first.
In 1979 he was awarded a Winston Churchill Fellowship, which saw him getting 14 weeks of hands-on experience in film repair at the National Film Archive in London, and visits to film archives in Europe.
Back at the Film Unit, production on two new films based on old newsreels provided a reason for preserving at least some of the NFU films. 1981 TV documentary Dreams in Black and White was followed in 1983 by the feature-length War Years. Both were compiled from footage used in the unit's Weekly Reviews newsreels.
Since the mid 70s, Sowry had been involved in efforts by archivists to show the need for establishing a national film archive. Soon young film fan Jonathan Dennis got involved; the two worked together to publicise how the country's film history was in danger of being lost. In 1981 Dennis became the founding director of the New Zealand Film Archive (now Ngā Taonga); he would later credit Sowry as the person who first made him understand key local films were in danger. It was Sowry who suggested the archive be run as a trust; he also wrote two of the archive's earliest publications.
Sowry also developed a knack for being able to examine a film, and discover clues to its age and identity — from manufacturer's marks which provide indications of when the film was made, to clues within the actual images. Among the early films he has discovered in New Zealand are early Georges Méliès short Le Manoir du Diable (1896) and footage from Southland-shot feature The Wagon and the Star (1936). He also had a close involvement with preserving the films of early cameraman James McDonald.
By the mid 80s the National Film Unit was heading into decline, as pressure grew for it to become more commercial. Sowry was told to run the archive as "a production archive". In 1990 the NFU was sold to TVNZ. By then Sowry had already transferred to National Archives (now Archives New Zealand), where he continued the archiving of NFU and other government films from this new base.
Sowry would spent 17 years at the organisation. "I proposed the setting up of a nitrate preservation programme," he says. "It got turned down twice." The programme would go on to copy more than 1000 reels of film onto cellulose triacetate safety film.
In 1990 Sowry spent an academic year in Sydney, where he gained a Diploma in Information Management - Archives Administration at the University of New South Wales.
In 2005 he left Archives New Zealand, and began offering his skills as a freelance researcher.
To date his writing and research on the National Film Unit, and early filmmakers in NZ, has appeared in The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, Onfilm, Cinema Papers, Sequence and archival magazine Archifacts. For 2011 book New Zealand Film - an Illustrated History, he authored the chapter on non-fiction filmmaking between the wars. For NZ On Screen, he curated this collection of National Film Unit titles, and has written profiles of a variety of figures, including NFU manager David H Fowler, cameraman Bert Bridgman and animator Fred O'Neill.
WALseeker website. Accessed 29 July 2016
Clive Sowry, 'Non-Fiction Films: Between the Warst' in New Zealand Film - An Illustrated History. Editor Diane Pivac, with Frank Stark and Lawrence McDonald (Wellington: Te Papa Press, 2011)
Emma Jean Kelly, The Adventures of Jonathan Dennis - Bicultural film archiving practice in Aotearoa New Zealand (Herts: John Libbey Publishing, 2015)